Do you want to learn more about perfecting Chopin’s Fantaisie Impromptu? In this blog post, we’ll share more about specific ways for you to approach Fantaisie Impromptu and master the techniques necessary to play with precision.
If you’d like to see the lesson this blog post is based on, click here to watch it for free — otherwise, read on!
This lesson will explore how to work on difficult fingerings, develop comfort with 3-over-4 polyrhythms, and use rhythmic drills and singing to practice phrasing in the context of Chopin’s Fantaisie Impromptu.
For intermediate or advanced players who want to take their playing to a new level, this lesson also touches on elements of style: pedaling, rubato, and adjusting to different performance spaces.
This piece was finished in 1834, shortly after Chopin’s Parisian debut, and one can hear the elegance, grace, and sophistication indicative of high French society. It is also Chopin’s first major work after his deep-dive into the music of JS Bach.
Leann Osterkamp, who teaches the free associated lesson, likes to think of fingerings like crossword puzzles: begin with the fingers that have to be in a set place, like large leaps, and then fill in the neighboring notes.
Leaps usually have to use a bigger expanse of hand, but the following/preceding notes may have options. If, after three days of practicing with a fingering and it isn’t working, find a different one.
Osterkamp uses the Henle edition with Chopin, but with any edition, always take written fingerings with a grain of salt.
Using m. 11 as an example, look at beats 1 and 3.
Using fingers 1 and 5 on the first two notes is the easiest option for those with small hands. The D♯ in beat 2 is already most easily played with the second finger, so we’ll play the C double-sharp with 1. Then work backward.
After that, there’s some gray area; we can try to follow 5 with 43 on A♯ and G.
This isn’t wrong, but the hand gets compressed. Osterkamp finds that 3-2 best prepares us to go up to 5 again.
Using 3-2 again one beat later sets up the thumb perfectly. It’s sometimes more effective to work out of order while working out fingerings. Optimize for minimal fingering shifts to get the most musical results.
In measure 33, Osterkamp suggests using a regular chromatic scale fingering for the chromatic scale descending from E.
Essentially, use your third finger on black keys and your thumb for white keys. Use 2-1 when two keys are next to each other.
The introduction of Chopin’s Fantaisie-Impromptu requires mastering the 3-over-4 polyrhythm. Osterkamp suggests the following strategy for building rhythmic familiarity:
- Visualize: On a piece of paper, draw a horizontal line. Put four lines/dots above it and three lines/dots underneath it so that they cover the same distance. The 2nd beat in the group of three hits in-between the 2nd and 3rd part in the group of four. Thus, the right hand is always moving slightly ahead of the left hand.
- Memorize: Pick your strongest or most dominant hand. Begin at the piano by selecting one measure with the polyrhythm and repeating the passage with that hand. Use a metronome to keep the downbeats accurate.
TIP: Have a friend switch a metronome on and off randomly and make sure you keep the same pulse during the silence!
- Practice marcato while playing slowly. When you speed up, it will sound more legato.
- When the first hand is automatic, add the other hand. Only play the first beat. If you picked a measure with a rest on the downbeat, fill it in with a note.
- Use the metronome as an aid, but never as a primary tool. You can practice polyrhythms anywhere - do them away from the piano! All you need is to tap your hands in rhythm.
Hands-separate practicing can take a very long time, as you can become more used to the individual hands than when the hands are together.
However, it can be helpful to strengthen motor memory, so let’s give some rhythmic drills a try with the hands separate.
Let’s examine a correct practice session for measure 13. Begin with just the right hand by prolonging the first note in every group of 4 and moving quickly through the next notes:
Now prolong the 2nd beat, moving quickly through the others.
Repeat for the third and fourth notes. Don’t freeze the hand as you go through it. When you land on the note, balance and stay relaxed.
The exercises below show the second, third, and fourth beats elongated, respectively:
Think about every note in-between: don’t space out! Constant awareness of your place in the music helps with memorizing the piece.
Now play groups of three in the left hand. Hold the first note and play the others quickly.
Engraved below are the first, second, and third notes of the beat elongated, respectively:
Before a concert, do this exercise with hands together.
It’s most helpful in the intro of this piece to play through an entire measure. Focus on the finger or hand that gets most tense or scared.
Then, mix it up and hold different notes (1 and 3, or 2 and 4!)
The Henle edition groups notes in a helpful way, but we don’t have to transmit the exact same grouping to the audience - the music won’t have clear phrasing.
To combat this, we can think in different phrasings. Even though Chopin put accents and slurs on the beats, we can use fingerings that go across the beats.
Our physical movements have to align with the mental conception we have of the music.
Regrouping changes the position of a slur to conceive of a passage in a more helpful way for the arms.
Let’s look at m. 37 – some of us may struggle with these jumps. Imagine that the last note of each group is the second note of the following group.
Imagine that you’re starting the pattern in a different place and orient the hand around that.
Then, begin looking for fingerings and trying rhythmic drills. If you’re getting a lot of arm fatigue, you may be holding onto specific notes too much.
Try some regrouping exercises to find a more comfortable hand position.
Rubato is the pulling and stretching of time and tempo. Without rubato, the music sounds like a mechanical exercise, a “snooze-fest!”
How much rubato is too much, and where do we use it?
Begin with the voice - even if you don’t like singing! Try putting your own text to the words - any lyric will do (something really silly is fine!)
Which notes do you want to inflect/bring out?
We have at least 2 interpretive options: accent “really” or “cook”? This takes us out of our piano-centric zone. The voice does things naturally, without overthinking.
In the middle section, it’s easy to overindulge and go too far with the rubato (so that the tune isn’t clear). Singing helps you know where you breathe/pause!
First, play the melody in the right hand while humming/singing it to find what phrasing feels most natural and where to breathe. Then hum the melody while playing both hands. Put your attention on the left hand - it will naturally do a push-and-pull to accommodate the other hand.
Rubato is a bit like a slinky; if you stretch a slinky out and let go, it will correct itself and collapse back to its original size.
If you take more time with a phrase, speed up somewhere else to compensate. Ultimately, flexibility and gracefulness are our objectives with Chopin!
Test your tempo with a metronome beating once or twice per measure.
Ornamentation comes out of an improvisatory context - ultimately, ornaments are just embellishments.
Think of the middle section as vocal. Try to sing the ornaments you’re playing - if you can’t, they probably need to be simplified. Take time to hear each note as it’s moving, treating each trill as something important.
The main melody returns four times in the middle section, and we should vary it each time.
For example, the first time could have no ornaments, the second time a bit more emphatic, the third time with slight rhythmic changes (can be quieter), and the fourth time with all ornaments, letting it all out!
Phrasing and Pedaling
A repeated passage should not be played the same every time; the listener has gone on a journey, so the music should reflect that.
As you practice, write down all the interpretive ideas you have. You might change the piece the next time you play it.
Chopin’s style is highly improvisatory, even though it may be more timid than other composers. There is tumult, drama, and profundity despite his introspective approach.
There are two schools of thought when it comes to interpreting a piece: the historical approach of how Chopin himself would’ve played it and performance practice, which is the life a piece takes on over time.
If an idea is convincing, it can be absorbed into performance practice, whether or not it’s historically accurate.
It’s your choice whether to use historical performance practice or more modern stylings! Ask yourself what style you’re looking for? Drama? Or something more reserved?
When it comes to pedaling, always make both a plan A and a plan B.
The sound of an instrument may carry very far in a cathedral (wet sound), or it may be very dry and absorb very quickly (rooms with carpeting). Each situation requires a very different pedaling approach.
Pedaling is a little like going to the eye doctor: trial and error narrows the perfect fit! Start on one end of the spectrum and then move to the other end to find what works the best.
To find the best pedaling for the beginning of this piece, start by using all pedal!
Obviously, this doesn’t quite work. It gets a bit more tolerable this way when we play measure 7. Next, play without pedal. Without any pedal at all, it’s a bit too direct, so change to pedaling every measure. This doesn’t work so well for the first three measures, but measure 7 almost works.
Continue this process, toggling between the two ends of the spectrum until you find a middle point that works.
Sometimes the pedaling you use depends on the clarity your hands feel at a given moment. If your hands are struggling more, use less pedal and change more frequently. If your fingers are very clear, it’ll add direction to use more pedal.
Osterkamp prefers to change pedal about every half-measure. This creates a nice counter-line for the right hand, too. We may need less pedal in m. 33 because of the chromaticism. We can get away with different types in m. 37 depending on the sound we want, too.
For the middle section, pedal as the harmony changes. Usually, this is every half-measure.
How can we create clarity with so many notes in the coda? It makes more sense to use more pedal at the end - it brings the listener’s ear to the left hand, distracting the listener a bit from the busy right hand.
In measure 123, pedal for the entire measure, since the right-hand pattern repeats itself. In m. 125, hold the pedal for two full measures. As the phrases are lengthening, the piece winds down.
Keep thinking about the artistry you want to convey as you play Fantaisie Impromptu. Think about the history - Bach’s influence, the hidden melodic lines, Parisian romanticism, rubato and pacing, reserved vs. virtuosity! Use all the tools at your disposal to create your own masterpiece. Good luck!
If you’d like to watch the lesson on this topic for free, just click here.
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